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A Poetics of Vandalism

…if the reader’s expression of his freedom through the text is tolerated among intellectuals (clercs) (only someone like Barthes can take this liberty), it is on the other hand denied students (who are scornfully driven or cleverly coaxed back to the meaning ‘accepted’ by their teachers) or the public (who are carefully told ‘what is to be thought’ and whose inventions are considered negligible and quickly silenced).

–Michel de Certeau, “Reading as Poaching” from The Practice of Everyday Life

While I should–officially–frown upon the destruction of university property, I have to admit that upon entering the Writers House this week for the first time since the fall semester, I was amused to see that someone had presumably taken the creative impulse from the safety of the page to the signage of the building. With the removal of a few letters, the noun “WRITERS HOUSE” was transformed into the verb (perhaps an imperative?) “REHOUSE.” Certainly this act of poaching was in the spirit of the unit on textual appropriation, bricolage, and erasure that I taught last semester in my creative writing workshops.  (One of my students had brilliantly whited out sections of Ellison’s Invisible Man–creating a striking alternate text as well as effectively playing with the theme of in/visibility.) This act of poaching also made me think of a syllabus that I recently drafted called “Poetry, Literary Recycling, and ‘Open Source’ Culture.” Looking at the sign again, I had thought that we could also remove “HO” to make “REUSE.” And out of the missing letters–wherever they may be–we could make “THIS ROW.”

Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.

4 thoughts on “A Poetics of Vandalism

  1. I wonder if we’re also meant to read it as “Re: House,” the colon simply ellipsed. It also would have been great if the removed letters formed some kind of message or clue to something else, though “writs” and “wrist” might enigmatically point to something.

    Re: Literary recycling and ‘open source’ culture: All kinds of threats are being made to things that should remain in the public domain. Check this out, for instance: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/01/scotus-re-copyright-decision/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wired%2Findex+%28Wired%3A+Index+3+%28Top+Stories+2%29%29&utm_content=My+Yahoo

    1. Sure, “Re: House” is a good option. And, yes, it would be great to find the other letters somewhere else in the building spelling out something else…The threat to public domain and anti-piracy crusades are very troubling.

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